Malthus, Marx and the North American Breadbasket

North America's dramatic emergence over the past generation as the world's principal supplier of food can be illustrated with a half dozen numbers. During the late 1930s, three of the world's seven major geographic regions supplied virtually all of the grain moving into the world market. Latin America, with exports of nine million metric tons yearly, was the leading food exporter, and grain exports were an important source of foreign exchange earnings. North America and Eastern Europe (including the Soviet Union) were each exporting five million tons yearly. Most of the grain exported from these three regions, principally wheat and corn, went to Western Europe.

Thirty years later, the pattern of world grain trade has been altered beyond recognition. As of 1966, Latin America, with net grain exports of two million tons, was scarcely self-sufficient. Exports from Argentina were largely offset by imports into Brazil and other smaller importing countries. Eastern Europe, including the Soviet Union, no longer exported grain but on the contrary was an importer; in 1966 the area imported some fourteen million tons, largely from Canada.

Of all the changes in the pattern of world grain trade between the late 1930s and 1966, the change in the position of North America was most pronounced. As shown by the table on the next page, net grain exports increased from five million tons to sixty million tons, providing in 1966 some 85 percent of the combined grain exports of the net exporting regions. Australia has substantially increased its exports, but its share of the total has remained at about 12 percent. North America has clearly emerged as the breadbasket of the world.

About three-fourths of North America's grain exports originate in the United States; the remaining one-fourth, coming from Canada, consists largely of wheat. U.S. grain exports are presently rather evenly divided between wheat and feedgrains. Significantly, the United States alone could export easily the entire sixty million tons yearly if it were to remove all remaining production constraints.

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